Cue the theme from Jaws. Ross Perot, the undead uncandidate, is once again stalking Bill Clinton and George Bush. Unlike those heady midsummer days, when Perot led in the polls, no one now thinks the volatile Texan could win or even place if he returns to the contest. But Perot still can scramble the political equation.
The pundits' consensus is that Clinton would be hurt if Perot reanimates the campaign he suspended in July. Anti-Bush voters who had flocked to the Perot banner, then defected en masse to Clinton, would once again have somewhere else to go. That might tip several close swing states, such as Ohio and Michigan, into the Bush column. True as far as it goes: But judging by Perot's electoral strengths and past behavior, the risks to Bush of a renewed Perot candidacy far outweigh any reward.
Already, Perot's mere presence on all 50 state ballots has been a boon to Clinton because it keeps some anti-Clinton voters out of the Bush column. And Perot has alarmed the Bush camp just by talking about renewing his campaign. One dread: paid Perot advertisements criticizing the Administration's handling of the economy. And the Clinton camp is doing nothing to quiet the Bushies' darkest fear: that the Arkansas governor is negotiating the terms of a Perot endorsement. Deputy campaign manager George R. Stephanopoulos admits there has been "some talk" with the Perotnistas. But an endorsement? "We're not at that point," he says. "Perot will do what he's going to do."
What he's doing now is acting coy. On Sept. 22, he met separately with Democratic Party Chairman Ronald Brown and White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III. The message: Pay attention to my platform or suffer the consequences.
Both sides are feverishly gauging Perot's potential for mischief. A Sept. 22 Washington Post/ABC News Poll found that Perot would take 20% of Bush's Democratic support and 19% of Clinton's Republican backing. From Bush, the Dallas billionaire steals significant support among men and Republican-leaning independents. Among Clinton backers, Perot makes inroads among Catholics, liberals, and Western populists.
But the defections could prove far more costly to Bush. Clinton's wide leads in states such as California and Pennsylvania give him a cushion even if Perot siphons off votes. But Bush can't afford the damage Perot could inflict in the tight, must-win contests in Texas and Florida. Republicans fear Perot could tip those states -- and their total of 57 electoral votes -- to Clinton by snagging rural Democrats and suburban independents who otherwise would go for the President.
SAFE HAVEN. Even more troublesome to the Bush camp is the fear that Perot could provide a safe haven for voters unhappy with Bush but unwilling to support Clinton. "Some of them are settling for Bush now, but they don't like it. Given half a chance, they'd go for Perot instead," says Theodore Arrington, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Even if he doesn't reenter, Perot could win 4% of the popular vote -- enough to affect the election's outcome. "Both Clinton and Bush's people wish Perot would just go away," says Jerry L. Polinard, a political scientist at the University of Texas-Pan American. But Perot wants to prove that he's a fighter, not a quitter. He may not be able to win, but he might settle for transforming the debate in the final weeks of the campaign -- and perhaps toppling a President in the process.
THE PEROT FACTOR State Electoral Net effect votes CALIF. 54 Still Clinton's TEXAS 32 A Clinton upset? FLA. 25 A Clinton upset? PA. 23 Still Clinton's OHIO 21 Tip to Bush MICH. 18 Tip to Bush WIS. 11 Tip to Bush DATA: BW